The Self-Centered Self

Just what the quote Nick Culver

“To become more assertive, use more ‘I’ statements.” In high school, this was a typical statement on how to improve your chances for success in the world, to supposedly avoid the world tromping all over you, which it will inevitably do anyway (don’t get your hopes up). This was when I was in high school. The self-help fad was in full swing, with Chicken Soup for the Soul and Words From a Grandmother being all the rage. The yuppie crowd was hitting their midlife crisis and evidently realizing that the real estate speculation and other such success tactics were little more than scrounging and scrambling to have a high number in a database representing green scraps of paper. So, to remedy this essentially empty life, they had an equally empty fad to help them define themselves and their goals.

The point is, this pathetic attempt at canned self definition resulted in the ‘I’ statements I was exposed to in high school. Let’s think about this surefire tool for success for a minute. It’s designed to make one more assertive, to help someone accomplish their own goals and to voice their own desires. Of course, it’s also designed to help them assert those desires over another human being. That’s the kicker right there, the ideological basis that reveals some rather disturbing truths about humanity. This ideal, the young fellow with the ‘I’ statement in his arsenal, is specifically trained to assert himself over other people. The ‘I’ statement puts the self first, which is something that the nature of life seems to do disturbingly well.

Look around you. What do you see? Well, a computer screen, most likely, and a desk. There’s a wide variety of objects strewn around, either for decoration or for practicality, or simply because that’s the last place they were dumped and they have not been called upon again since then. What’s unique about what you see? The only unique thing about it is where you see it from. Due to the property of matter that infers that no two objects can be in the same place at the same time, and the fact that your eyes are not on time share, you and only you have the specific, unique perspective that you currently have.

It may sound like I’m making you out to be a special and unique snowflake. Relax, I won’t let you down like that. Where I’m going with this is the fact that this uniqueness of vision makes every human being essentially self centered. No sound sounds quite the same to two people, entire conversations are misremembered. No sight is the same for two people, even if by the basic difference of physical perspective. Similarly, taste, smell, and touch perception differ from person to person. Each perception is unique to the individual. You do not have access to another person’s point of view. The best approximation that you have is your imagination. You can, through assumptions made based upon the current configuration of physical features, infer what someone is feeling or thinking. I’d argue that this method is unreliable at best. If it were otherwise, humanity would not have attempted to improve upon by inventing language. Even language is highly imperfect, with multiple complete fields of study being available to attempt to rectify its failings. (hmmm…English major, eh?) In the end, even with the tool of language, we can only fall back on imagination, on our basic assumption that the idea that was formed in one mind was properly translated into the linguistic medium, transmitted properly, received properly, and then retranslated back into the medium of thought. Yet we assume, each and every time we communicate with one another, that we know what the other person is thinking. Think of the presumption involved, to presuppose that each and every one of these steps has been carried out.

In the end, the only experience we can access with any degree of surety is our own five senses and our own thoughts. How does this make us essentially self centered? It promotes trust of our own selves over others. We cannot actually experience what anyone else has, due to physical restrictions. We can only access others’ thoughts with a high degree of imprecision. Since we can access no other point of view with accuracy, our own is the only one we can truly trust. Our chains to our own perception doom us to be essentially self-centered. What brings us from this trust in ourselves over others to a higher degree of worth of the self? I could always fall back on the basic principle of economics that all individuals seek to further their self interests because those interests are directly tied to them. It really is a tidy argument if made by a good economist, and its implications prove something I’ve known for a long time: that people are unfit to govern themselves in a macro setting. That’s an argument for another day. No, I’ll point to something much simpler. Trust is the key to any good relationship, the key to closeness. Being closely tied to something alternatively defined as holding that thing of high value, of caring excessively about it. Thus, since we can only truly trust our own perception of our surroundings and our thoughts, it follows that the thing we feel most concerned and connected to is that self. In the end, it really is all about ourselves.

What do we do with this? Do we recoil in horror? Do we find ourselves to be completely vile in the fact that our lives are wholly without altruism? Or do we swallow it and move on, embracing our self-centered lives? I don’t know about you, but I find that, as a self centered individual, I don’t particularly care if I give the rest of humanity a raw deal…

Response #1
by Adam Pollard

I’m going to start by saying I am not a philosopher, but a scientist and atheist. I also believe that any scientist should also be an atheist, but that is a subject in itself.

The case made for people being self-centered is strong and one I would tend to agree with. However, the conclusions drawn later on and what appears to be an unproved extension from self-centered to “selfish” are, I believe, flawed.

Firstly, what is “self”? The author appears to define this as a unique sensory perspective, as individuals, we can’t be in the same place as someone else at the same time and small differences in our senses mean we perceive things slightly differently. Although this is true, it is also true that each time we sit at the same desk, our own perception is different, the light is different, the banana skin on the table is a bit browner and beginning to smell different, the humming from the hard drive a bit different.

Each moment of passing time is different for each of us, so you can argue that our own self is in fact a different self to yesterday, and perhaps all that is unique is each snapshot in time. So, we have infinite, but connected, selves during our lifetimes.

So what is self? Is there an X on the map? Is it in my head, or my chest, my penis, my arse, my big toe? all of them? It is a purely a matter of molecules? If the molecule is in my body, it is part of myself? Does it extend to the baby in the woman’s womb? Does the baby perceive itself? Does it perceive the mother’s heartbeat as being external? When the baby is born, does the mother sever all links? If so, it is before or after cutting the umbilical cord? Does it still exist while breast-feeding? When the child leaves home?

I think there are different levels of connectivity between one’s physical self and a wider perceptual self. I also think this is affected by previous experiences and associations. An old photo to a stranger is just an old photo, to the child looking at a photo of the parent, the sensory experience is modified by mood and emotion. The stranger might not notice the dimple in the cheek, or the tired look on the face of the subject.

So, I contend that self is more than unique perception using physical senses. I agree that we are self-centered, but I don’t believe this leads to the conclusion given.

“In the end, the only experience we can access with any degree of surety is our own five senses and our own thoughts. How does this make us essentially self centered? It promotes trust of our own selves over others.

It might promote trust in our senses over others’, but not necessarily in our selves over others. Our trust in others is based on our perception of previous events and the liklihood of the trust being valid. When we trust in others, this can also make us stronger individually. I have more trust in the my 6ft 6″ tough mate fighting a mugger than myself.

When we trust in the collective, family, clan, football team, this also makes us stronger individually. Atilla the Hun wouldn’t have got far on his own, however tough he was.

“We cannot actually experience what anyone else has, due to physical restrictions. We can only access others’ thoughts with a high degree of imprecision. Since we can access no other point of view with accuracy, our own is the only one we can truly trust.

But our own point of view wasn’t formed in a vacuum, it formed as a result of our taught thought processes acting upon data presented to us in a variety of media. So, although we may PREFER to trust our own point of view, it doesn’t follow that we CAN truly trust it.

“I don’t know about you, but I find that, as a self centered individual, I don’t particularly care if I give the rest of humanity a raw deal…”

And of course, if a person’s behaviour really reflects this attitude, then the rest of humanity are likely not to want to work with them and they are likely to be isolated. Even dictators will reward certain individuals (family, barons, generals etc) in order to gain cooperation.

There is a dialectic between individual and collective. We can imagine them as separate components, but they are not separate and they strongly influence each other. We live in a society, and the strongest individuals are not often the most isolated ones.

Response #2
by Dominic Hefferan

Nick seems to be labeling the self as an instictive being who has no way to overcome those instincts. Adam is presenting the self as a thing that is effected by its surrounding environment. I personally believe the self is a mixture of the two. Nick believes the individual naturally trusts only himself. This could be labelled an instinct. For example, in the animal kingdom, all animals do things with no apparent motivation. For example, the turtle is hatched on the beach, often relatively far from the ocean, yet it still painstakingly crawls across the loose sand to the sea. It has no way of knowing why it does this. (I, whilst thinking it would be extremely cool if it existed, believe that telepathic communication is a load.)

The individual also subconsciously becomes self-centered, and that attitude can thus be labeled as an instinct. We are not completly ruled by insticts as an animal is, but are also affected by modern group mentality. When something bad happens to somebody else, we too can feel bad. This is known as compassion, something most of us feel, though when dissected, compassion is something that was invented by modern man. I am talking about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. We do it to see things from different perspectives. It also happens subconsciously, and we think, “Man, I’d hate to have that happen to me.” We call it compassion, something most people have. Therefore, the mix of human instinct seems to have balanced itself with the surrounding environment to produce a general public who are basically selfless people, even if they don’t realise it.

2 thoughts on “The Self-Centered Self

  1. It is true that humans can only truely expierience the world around them through their own senses. However, on the issue of compassion Dominic touched on i have something to add. I believe Dominic is touching on the slightly more broad concept of empathy. In our society we are taught that humans are quite selfish beings which must struggle with their inner nature. Capitalism is actually an ideology that attempts to harness the selfishness of humans. Dominic also pointed out that human instinct is not necccarrily all encompassing. Now, what if i say that by nature, humans are both selfish and empathic? All animals must be selfish to some degree to survive in a hostile environment, there are times when individuals may have to value their own life over that of another to survive this could be called instinctive selfishness. On the other side of that spectrum, a mother will often sacrifice their own life to protect their child, this could be called instinctive compassion.
    Going even farther, it has been found that when an individual (lets say individual A) sees another individual (individual B) expieriencing something, maybe eating an apple. At this point, the electrical activity in the brain of individual B changes in order to communicate the various sensations and bodily commands involved in eating that apple, and astonishingly the brain of individual A is doing the *same* thing. This is empathy on the most basic level, and while individual A may never expierience what individual B is expieriencing exactly, this individual *will* be pretty close. This also happens for emotions and all manner of physical sensations. Humans are empathic organisms designed to cooperate with and feel compassion with one another and cannot simply be described as selfish, if humans were truely selfish no society would exist, humans need to cooperate to some degree with one another to survive. Not only are humans Empathic alongside being selfish, but empathy has been in some ways far more important to the human growth and expansion for thousands of years.


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